Spain reels as young drinkers organise inter-city contest

Cities throughout Spain are bracing themselves this week for the biggest exhibition of mass binge-drinking the country has ever seen.

Young people from Seville to Bilbao, from Madrid and Barcelona to Vigo and Santiago de Compostela, plan to take over the centres of more than 15 cities on Friday night in an unprecedented nationwide drinking contest.

It is the latest, and by far the most ambitious, example of el botellon - or "big bottle" - when underage drinkers laden with plastic bags of bottles of spirits and cola take over town centres for an all-night drinking session. After hours of revelry, the youngsters totter off at dawn, leaving neighbours sleepless and city squares and parks awash with broken glass, discarded plastic and body fluids in defiance of Spaniards' supposedly moderate "Mediterranean" drinking habits.

News of Friday's impromptu marathon - called the macro-botellon - has spread nationwide via internet chat forums and a blizzard of e-mails and text messages. The aim of the contest is not to establish who can drink the most, but which city can mobilise the largest number of young swiggers on to the street.

The authorities used to dealing with drunken excesses during local fiestas but they are looking on aghast as Friday approaches, dithering over how to deal with the unprecedented threat to public order, and public health. Meanwhile, parents wonder why their children - some as young as 13 - choose to spend all night getting blotto on the boulevard.

Botellones have become common throughout Spain in recent years. Youngsters complain that bars are too expensive, that they have a right to enjoy themselves, and there is nothing else for them to do. In an attempt to control the phenomenon, some regional authorities have clamped down on off-sales of alcohol to minors, and on bar sales of drinks out of doors after 10pm. Police try to clear drinkers from residential areas with hoses, but they decamp somewhere else.

The momentum for Friday's mega-session began on 16 February when students from Seville University decided to celebrate the end of their exams with a botellon. (The practice is particularly well entrenched in Andalusia.) They alerted their friends by the usual electronic bush telegraph, and up to 5,000 young Sevillians flocked to the university campus clinking their carrier bags.

The rival university city of Granada saw television footage of Seville's drinking multitudes as a challenge, and within days citizens called their own botellon for Friday. Other cities signed up to what they called "a spring fiesta": Bilbao, Murcia, Barcelona, Huelva, Valencia, Madrid, Zaragoza, Santander, Burgos, Badajoz ... Vigo and Santiago de Compostela even held a dress rehearsal last Saturday, to ensure they could drum up sufficient numbers.

Elena Salgado, the Health Minister, warned would-be participants that macro-botellones were a danger to their health, and urged parents to keep their teenagers at home on Friday. A spokesman for the region of Madrid asked youngsters "to reflect on the leisure alternatives on offer to them". City councils have warned that they will not permit Friday's display, but have not specified what, if any, action they will take. Some have local laws which impose fines on underage street drinkers. Otherwise, the authorities' hands are tied unless the young drinkers engage in acts of disorder - which they rarely do. Teenage drinking is a big problem in Spain. A national drugs survey found in 2004 that 38 per cent of 14-year-olds drank alcohol regularly. It also found that 18 per cent of those aged 18 to 25 in Madrid took part in botellones at least once a month.

In Galicia, the figure was 40 per cent, with 36 per cent of those between 12 and 18 expressing a liking for cheap booze. Parents have demanded that local authorities offer more leisure activities. But many acknowledge they have little control over their adolescent offspring at weekends between dusk and dawn, and fear they are creating a generation of heavy drinkers.

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